Monday, April 20, 2015

David Harwell and the STEM panel: no hope

From a random clicking around, I happened upon one of my old bugaboos, Bayer MaterialScience, and a YouTube of flogging of the "STEM crisis" in a December 2013 panel. If you'd like to listen to it, there's over 90 minutes of self-congratulatory hogwash from a variety of people who claim that there is a vast shortage of STEM workers. I was pretty irritated at it, but then I heard this exchange from Dr. David Harwell, an American Chemical Society staff member, asking the panel a pretty darn good question (starts at 1:21:17 on the video): 
David Harwell, American Chemical Society: Thanks for the conversation, it's been great. I'm David Harwell, from the American Chemical Society. It's National Chemistry Week, so yay! 
Our unemployment rate in chemistry is 3.5% - that's good, until I look at new graduates. So new graduates, new bachelor's in chemistry are over 16% unemployment, new PhDs, 9%. 
So I'm not so worried about those more experienced people -- we've been able to place them. What I can't place are the new grads because I think that we overshot, there's this miscommunication that you've been talking about, where people have been encouraged and there's uh, for these students, or students that can't find a job, they feel that there's a broken covenant. Often times when I'm counseling them, they're saying "You told me" -- I didn't tell them anything -- but somewhere along the way, somebody promised them, "Get a degree in STEM and you'll be taken care of." And so they end up going for their master's or their Ph.D. because they can't get a job and at least they'll get paid in grad school in chemistry. That's the good thing about chemistry. 
So how do we, how can we address this - you have two lost boys, I have 6,000 lost students. How do we address their needs, can we get them back into the workforce somehow? Is there demand for them, or is it only at the manufacturing level?  
Laurel Rutledge, VP for Human Resources at Bayer MaterialScience: (laughter) I'm like, you know, chemists, you know seriously, I'm thinking about some retirements that we've had and some very serious changes in our workforce and Bayer is a company that's 150 years old, 150 years of making science make sense, that's Bayer. And so, we have, and it's a place that people don't leave. They come to Bayer and they retire from Bayer. What means is that if you look at the way the generational curve is happening, we are approaching a point in time where we are going to have more people retiring as fast as we need them. So, I'm not sure what's happening everywhere else, but we are looking for people daily. Daily. Entry as well as experienced, bachelor's, 2 year degrees, master's degrees, Ph.D.s, we want 'em. We want 'em.  
Nicole Smith, Research Professor and Senior Economist: And you know, it's not much consolation to tell them, well, your 16% is much lower than the 27% for some other degrees. But, what I would say is that you need to extend your search. All chemistry majors don't have to become chemists and first evaluate what your competencies are, sit down and you can go to the end O*NET site, discover what your knowledge, skills and abilities are, what your interests are and look outside of that. 40% of jobs require STEM competencies today that are not your traditional chemist, mathematician, actuary job. They're way beyond that, so just broaden that set and you can have a lot of opportunities outside of the chemist occupation. 
I've heard Dr. Harwell talk a few times, but I don't think I've ever heard him grok the #chemjobs problem for younger chemists as well as he does here. "Broken covenant" is a great way to put it. And the answers that he gets are appalling -- the VP for Human Resources basically tells him that, from where she sits, he's wrong, and the economist basically tells him to tell students to look elsewhere (gee, no kidding.)

I don't know what kind of long game the STEM shortage myth makers are playing, but it is clear that (much like many of us) when they are confronted with contrary evidence, they dismiss it pretty easily.  


  1. It speaks pretty clearly though - whatever we need to get cheap, expendable employees in and out of the doors, we'll accept, and what doesn't, we'll ignore.

    I wonder if speaking about the oncoming shortage of HR people and upper management and the need for outsourcing, automation, and a cheaper new grad influx into those fields might help to change their perceptions?

  2. "Bayer is a company that's 150 years old, 150 years of making science make sense, that's Bayer."

    Corporate drone, talking about what her company should be in her brainwashed mind versus what it really is. Truly Orwellian.

  3. Send those CV's to everyone!

    (Seriously that's just a joke address but if someone has the real email, i would highly encourage them to post it. "We want 'em"!

  4. I facepalmed after reading the responses of the HR vp and the "senior economist". It's like they just recited a couple of memorized lines, without knowing what exactly it is they are saying and how it relates to, or answers, the stated question.

  5. There's much to be learned from this exchange. A lot of students don't realize that there is NO undergraduate major that will guarantee you a job after graduation. I've seen a lot of, quite frankly, crappy students persist at chemistry. They stink at it, but they've gotten the idea that it'll improve their employment opportunities. A 2.0 GPA in chemistry isn't going to impress anybody except for dudes who got below a 2.0 GPA in chemistry.

    With respect to Rutledge, "looking daily" and "hiring daily" aren't the same. Plus, that's only one company making a non-binding and non-official statement. The economist's advice isn't really all that bad. It sounds obvious, but again, there are a lot of students who are fixated on making a career in chemistry with a background that really doesn't support it. Should they have gotten better advice earlier? Yes.

    1. Or they stick with chemistry because they genuinely love the field in spite of what their grades say. Sometimes being too dumb to know when to quit is a good thing; it can be mistaken for tenacity. What someone learned as an undergrad in no way limits what they can learn afterward, and not all good students are good scientists. I graduated with a subpar GPA and I'm glad that I stuck with chemistry in spite of the difficulty finding a gig afterward. Once I found myself in the right gig, the months in retail, the existential crises, and self-doubt were totally worth it. At the end of the day, it's up to the individual to pursue the path of their choosing as long as they choose to. It's a personal decision that depends entirely on what's important to that person alone.


  6. Back about 2005, Bayer MaterialScience laid off chemists, though I don't know how many. It's hard to listen to Ms. Rutledge in the video say that people come to Bayer and don't leave until they retire, when this simply isn't true.
    Interestingly, the Bayer MaterialScience division is about to be spun off from the parent company.

    I think companies like Bayer engage in these 'STEM' actitivities for PR purposes, just to make themselves look like good corporate neighbors. Similar to the way that companies say they care about hiring the disabled or veterans.

  7. A local university has a course series on science entrepreneurship. Last month, I was invited, and gave a lecture on my company started and how I got to where I'm at. I arrived to a classroom of about 10 or so innocent young men and women, full of hope and promise, eager to hear the "successful chemistry consultant" and a few faculty members. Here's a summary of the first few minutes:

    ME: How many of you have been told that you're sure to have a job when you complete your course of study here at (Small Midwest University)?
    (Audience response - 100% of the students).

    ME: And I take it you've been hearing that for the last 2-3 years from your faculty, administration and even the president of the college, right?
    (Again - yes)

    ME; They all lied to you. From your favorite professor, to the president of the college, since you entered this university. The hard fact is that no one owes you a job. You have to earn it every day. Outside the hallowed halls of this prestigious university, is the United States of America, where success is not a guarantee. What is generally guaranteed is equal opportunity to success. The sooner you grasp this hard truth, the sooner you will be on your way to success. The only easy day was yesterday.

    Response: Sad faces from the students, irritated faces from some of the faculty.

    1. Sounds good except for the "generally guaranteed is equal opportunity to success" part.

    2. I agree with your argument, though it would be nice if academia would waste a lot less of my time so I could actually work on "earning it". It would also be great if corporations would stop pushing for more STEM funding that requires people to spend years gaining skills that companies like yours probably could care less about. The "life is tough, get used to it" attitude seems to apply more to people who graduated college and are living at their parent's place wondering why they don't have a corner office. It does not seem to apply as well to people that already work 6 days a week in a lab for a slave driving boss that pays rock bottom. This may be the reason for some of the sad faces.

    3. I don't think I was ever told that earning a degree (B.S., M.S., or Ph.D.) in chemistry would surely lead to a job after graduation. I decided to study and do research in chemistry because I enjoyed the intellectual challenge and because I could drive my research with a great deal of independence. Even as an undergraduate, it was clear to me that there were more sure-fire ways to a safe career than by studying chemistry (e.g., M.D., MBA, certain engineering degrees), but that these courses of study would be less intellectually satisfying. Nevertheless, after ten years at university, I was able to transition quite painlessly to a reasonably well-paid R&D position in industry, along with a majority of colleagues from graduate school.

      In doing so, I learned two things that were not clear to me when I was at university (though when I think back, I can remember quite clearly conversations with faculty members where I was told me both of these):
      -I will need to continue learning for the rest of my life.
      -There are many things I can do with a chemistry (Ph.D.) degree outside of laboratory research, if I am willing to learn the additional skills. Many of these jobs are better paid than R&D.

      I don't think that this blog contributes much towards dispelling the notion that people trained in science must be "lab rats" and cannot transition into other functions (because most of the positions Chemjobber identifies are ones that can be done by people with little or no experience outside of a university laboratory research).

    4. Steve, your last sentence is interesting and is worth me thinking about. Can you talk more about it, or send me an e-mail?

    5. @Anon #1: I did say "generally guaranteed equal opportunity to success." In the US, you're still pretty free to make career decisions, some of those decisions are better than others.

      @Anon #2 (who may be the same as Anon #1): The skills that "companies like mine" are looking for are (1) you know something about chemistry, (2) you can write and communicate well and (3) you can critically think. It's not a case of "pick two" from that list, it's all three. Unfortunately many BS level programs focus on the chemistry part, not the communication part and certainly not the critical thinking part.

  8. I would even take issue with David Harwell's assertion "So I'm not so worried about those more experienced people -- we've been able to place them."


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20